After spending the past couple of weeks considering the problems and advantages of church, then seeking some solutions to the problems, my mind is a little like overstretched elastic -- the underwear waistband that is no longer functional. But it's starting to snap back. Or at least slowly shrink down to reality once again. Please bear with me as cinch my belt one notch tighter today.
My mind is still on church. I like the local church. I've been both behind and in front of the pulpit on Sunday mornings. It's different for a pastor than it is for the person in the pew/soft, cushy chair. I'm not saying it's better. But it's different.
I remember Sunday mornings where the last thing I wanted to do was to put on decent clothes (meaning: no sweatpants with holes in the knees and tattered t-shirt) and go have shallow conversations with people, all in the guise of going to worship God. It took me some time to figure out that even those people whose conversational depth wasn't beyond cold fronts and yesterday's winds were children of God -- my brothers and sisters in Christ. Hey, every family has its share of characters... why not God's? But beyond that, we often had shallow conversations because I refused to let them go any deeper into my life. I wouldn't let them in. I didn't allow myself to have closer relationships because I could see the faults in these people and I didn't want them to see the faults in me. The quality of my relationships with my fellow believers changed when I realized what I was doing, then corrected it.
There were plenty of Sundays when I just didn't feel that close relationship with my Creator either. And those were the days when it would have been easier to baptize a family of alley cats by immersion than to pull me from my warm bed. I felt disconnected from God. But I also felt that I was somehow of stronger character than those other Christians because I didn't need to go to church like those other people did. My real fear, though, was that I could easily go for an hour of worship and come out unchanged. And if that was the case, then what was the point of it all?
Once again I found that this feeling changed when I worked on deepening the relationship with my God and Savior. I didn't come to that conclusion by sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon. I came to that conclusion by realizing just how much about my faith that I was ignorant of. A few Christian radio shows taught me more about Christianity than I had learned in years of attending church. Then I figured out why that was: this time I was willing to learn. I wasn't just enduring a sermon to sing the closing hymn. I came in with a different attitude. I could really benefit from being in church, as well as giving glory to God! That changed not only my experience in Sunday worship, but also my entire Christian walk.
From that point on, the Bible didn't sit there and mock me. It challenged me to dig within its pages to find what Jesus was all about. It pushed me to make my faith real. My prayer time wasn't just talking to myself, but communicating with a real, loving heavenly Father. Sunday morning wasn't just a time to show up and look pious, it was an opportunity to pour my heart out in worship and let Him fill my heart up again.
After that, I didn't miss many Sunday morning services. Maybe for an occasional weekend away or a sick kid, but I more fully understood why I was there. Beyond that, I needed to be there. If I had to miss two Sundays in a row, that was 21 days between worship services! That drove me crazy! I really wanted to be a part of that worship experience, and yes, even to have some shallow conversations with my brothers and sisters in Christ whom I didn't know well yet.
When I became a pastor almost nine years ago, I took on a new role in worship. Sure I had participated in the worship service while in the pews. I had also sung in choirs, read Scripture, performed solos, and even given testimonies in services before, but as pastor the responsibility of expounding upon God's Word through the power and the guidance of the Holy Spirit was now on my shoulders. But I liked that. There was no problem. Most every Sunday, God had armed me with His words from His Word and I had no difficulty standing before the assembled and delivering them.
Still I noticed that things were different, especially when I would attend a conference and would return to the role of participant in the pew, if only for a couple of days. It is a different kind of experience being used in a different kind of way. Over the past nine years, God has blessed me with the opportunities to sit and be filled in a corporate setting from time to time so that I would be refreshed and ready to head back to the pulpit once again.
Then came one Sunday, almost two weeks ago. I was empty. I had nothing. It wasn't just Sunday. It was much of the week leading up to it as well. I had managed to put the service together and craft a sermon, but I didn't know if I had the spiritual strength to deliver it. It had been a particularly rough week mentally and emotionally, and I longed for the opportunity to go to a different church that Sunday morning. Maybe somewhere where I could just sit and worship and be filled once again. But that wasn't going to happen. I have no assistant pastor. I have no staff. I am my own secretary. It was up to me. Or was it?
God was ready to fill me up. I just had to lean on him. He wanted me to fill his people that Sunday, and He was perfectly willing to ready me for the task. But I had to bow my knee and my heart and my whole being to Him. My mind wasn't able to sit and read Scripture. I had to sit and meditate upon Him and upon His very Being. I had to wrestle in prayer. I had to come down from my comfortable stronghold and be vulnerable to Him once again. And so I did.
That Sunday went well. God spoke through my words. I could feel His presence that morning and His guidance as I stood behind the pulpit. And through that experience I realized (or perhaps remembered) that God will fill me so that I won't run dry. God will provide what is needed if I just ask. He will never leave me, nor forsake me. Nor will He give me a job to do without providing the tools and the materials. What an incredible God we have!
I've talked with many people who are at one of the places where I have been. Church isn't exciting. The people are bothersome. The Bible confuses rather than inspires. Prayer is like talking to a brick wall. I know all those feelings, and I know what it took from me to change them. It took the faith to quit trying to stand on my supposed strong moral character and to lean on the everlasting arms of Jesus.
The churches where I sat in the pews were not perfect. Not even close. The church where I stand behind the pulpit isn't anywhere near flawless either. Yet I am filled by being there and by preparing to go there. That affects my Bible reading. It affects my prayer life. It affects my parenting. It affects my responsibilities as a husband, a friend, a brother, a son, a worker, a writer, a pastor and a whole host of other roles. Besides giving me the opportunity to glorify God, church makes me a better Christian. And there were many times when I would have believed just the opposite. God even uses my out-of-church times to make my in-church experiences meaningful. I can see that now because it helps to have a little perspective, courtesy of my heavenly Father.